Book Review: The Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey

I love a good crime novel and throw in the setting of India under British rule and I just can’t help myself. That’s probably why I love this new series by Sujata Massey. Her sleuth is Bombay solicitor, Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in town – this is the 1920s, after all. She works for her father, has put a terrible marriage behind her and just wants to get on with her career.

The first book, A Murder at Malabar Hill, sees Perveen get involved with three widows of a wealthy mill owner whose estate is being managed by an employee from the firm. Studying the documents which show the women have signed over their inheritance to a trust, Perveen smells a rat, and decides to talk to the widows in person. That’s the advantage of being a female lawyer – the women live in strict seclusion, a male lawyer would never be admitted. Tensions mount as Perveen learns more about the family, and then a murder takes place.

Perveen’s snooping is interrupted by fears for her safety when she thinks she recognises her estranged husband all the way from Calcutta. The story of her ill-fated marriage is woven through the main plot in flashbacks with some resonances with the main story, both revealing the difficulties for women living in very traditional family settings. It’s just as well Perveen’s own family – her parents, brother and sister-in-law, are more forward thinking and loving.

Along for the ride is Perveen’s old friend from her Oxford days, Alice Hobson-Jones, bored and restless to use her fierce mathematical brain now she’s back home with her well-healed parents. Her mother’s keen to see her daughter settle down with a suitable husband, as if that’s ever going to happen. Another woman eager to shape her destiny in a society that would rather she didn’t.

Massey recreates 1920s Bombay with lots of colour, some wonderful meal descriptions, and interesting characters. Perveen is feisty when she needs to be and also has a good memory when it comes to the law – the reader gets lots of insight into the relevant legislature without being too bogged down in details. You get the sense that the author has done her homework. I loved the minor characters: the Mistry’s general factotum, Mustafa who keeps Perveen up to speed with her father’s moods is a particular gem, as is Alice – tall and fair, she’s a head taller than Perveen but a brilliant friend.

This book won an Agatha Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, which is why I wanted to read it after having just devoured the second book in the series: The Satapur Moonstone. Yes, again I read the books in the wrong order, but at least now I’m all square. The second book sends Perveen to the remote state of Satapur, home to the widow of a maharaja and her mother-in-law, the dowager maharani. The two women are in dispute over the education of the young prince and future maharaja, and a lawyer is required to sort out an agreeable solution.

The women live in purdah, so no men are admitted and Perveen is requested by the British agent overseeing their kingdom. Perveen must travel by palanquin, a kind of sedan chair arrangement, through forests inhabited by tigers and other deadly animals to the palace. Here she finds a royal family living under a curse not long after the deaths of both the last maharaja of cholera, and his eldest son to a hunting tragedy.

We’re in monsoon country, transport is difficult and news travels slowly. The local villagers live a traditional and fairly impoverished existence, while up at the palace, we’ve got power plays, secrets and treachery while the uncomfortable political situation brought about by British rule rears its ugly head from time to time. Tension of various kinds build to a ripping ending. This a terrific addition to the series, and some unfinished business for Perveen makes me eager for Book 3.

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